When the Cardinals beat the Cubs 2-1 last Tuesday, the team took control of first place in the National League Central by one game over Chicago and two games over Milwaukee. That was the last game for St. Louis ahead of the trade deadline. While the season had been an up and down one for the Cardinals, with a great April, a terrible June and July, and a big surge after the All-Star break, the team put itself in position to make a run at the division title. While the offense had struggled for a few months, the club didn’t really need a bat to fortify itself, and there wasn’t much help available at the trade deadline, anyway. The bullpen had been a somewhat unexpected strength all season, and even with Jordan Hicks out, Andrew Miller‘s resurgence, Giovanny Gallegos‘ rise, and Carlos Martinez’s move to relief (plus the arms available in the minors), meant the relievers didn’t need a lot of help, even if another lefty would have been acceptable. But Cardinals had a very clear need in the rotation, and they did nothing to address it.
St. Louis’ front office has gotten a lot of criticism for the team’s failure to make the postseason the past three years. Some of that criticism is deserved, but sometimes, it misses the mark. It’s true that the Cardinals haven’t been very active at the trade deadline in recent seasons, but then, there hasn’t been much need for a lot of activity. The table below shows the Cardinals’ playoff odds on the day before the trade deadline, since 2014:
|Division||Wild Card||Playoffs||Division Series|
The Cardinals haven’t had more than a 25% chance of making the division series, or even a 10% chance of winning the division at the trade deadline, since 2015. In that season, the team was virtually assured of a playoff spot, so they added a few relievers and a bench bat. Without going over all of those seasons in detail, the Cardinals haven’t found themselves in a position where an infusion of talent at the trade deadline would have meaningfully tipped their playoff odds since 2014, when they traded two young players off their active roster in Joe Kelly and Allen Craig for John Lackey, who was signed through 2015. The Cardinals’ failure to address their needs this trade deadline is a departure from past seasons, not a continuation.
Another criticism, which has greater validity, is that the Cardinals have traded away too many major league-caliber players, almost always selling low for a minimal return. Among the players they’ve dealt lately who have gone on to succeed elsewhere are Luke Voit, Oscar Mercado, Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Aledmys Díaz, and Mike Leake. Here’s how those players have performed since leaving St. Louis:
|PA/IP||WAR||WAR/600 PA or 180 IP|
On the pitching side, they weren’t really missing Gonzales, who hadn’t been healthy, or Leake, as the team was among the top 10 rotations in baseball over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Diaz hasn’t been missed, while Piscotty and Grichuk have been fine, but not worth lamenting over. Mercado is the latest outfielder to find success, though it is worth noting that the two young outfielders on the Cardinals have performed better than Mercado in limited time:
With Bader in Triple-A and O’Neill hurt, the club seems to be missing Mercado, but the new Cleveland center fielder has been merely good and his Statcast numbers indicate a fair amount of good luck. Even the Voit trade doesn’t look quite as bad given Voit’s injury and the emergence of Gallegos. In looking at the two charts, the organization has seemingly made two poor decisions and both of them are related. The first was signing Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract. Fowler was a good player when he signed, and his 2.7 WAR in his first season meant both that he looked like a decent bet to be worth his contract and that he would spend the bulk of the contract as a roughly average player even if he aged pretty well. Given the Cardinals’ ability to produce or find at least average outfielders — and the two tables above seem to indicate that’s the case — signing a roughly average outfielder at free agent prices wasn’t a necessary expense. Problems compounded when Fowler had a disastrous 2018 season, and even though he’s rebounded this season, he’s rebounded to average, which leads to the Tommy Pham trade.
At the time of the trade, Pham had produced 1.5 WAR in two-thirds of a season, roughly a two-win pace coming off a six-win season in 2017. The Cardinals, ostensibly to give playing time to Bader and O’Neill, opted to trade Pham for an objectively low package while keeping Fowler. The trade didn’t make a ton of sense then and it has made even less since, as Pham has put up 5.5 WAR over the last year for the Rays. All of this is to say that the Cardinals’ trading record isn’t that spotty; indeed, trading Pham is the only really bad trade the team’s made of late. But making a misstep with Fowler helped to cause a massive error with Pham.
The Cardinals’ deadline decisions on whether or not to chase a playoff spot have been mostly reasonable since 2014, and the team has only made one really poor trade in that time. So what are we to make of the Cardinals’ decision not to give up a package headlined by O’Neill or Bader for Zack Wheeler? Presumably the club attempted to make a move for players potentially under contract beyond 2019, like Marcus Stroman, Trevor Bauer, Mike Minor, and Robbie Ray. If we give the Cardinals the benefit of the doubt and assume that Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman would’ve been required, then the Cardinals were probably correct to pass on those potential deals. But Wheeler presents a harder call.
Playing it safe meant the team missed the playoffs in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The Cardinals were supposedly lucky to have missed out on David Price and Jason Heyward after 2016, but over the next few years used that money on Leake and Fowler ($90 million and a draft pick for 6.5 WAR with $30 million still owed to Fowler), and relievers like Brett Cecil, Greg Holland and Luke Gregerson ($55 million and a draft pick for 0.5 WAR) while Heyward (6.5 WAR for $78 million with $106 million remaining) and Price (11 WAR for $121 million with $96 million remaining) have been better deals with more production thus far, even with considerable amounts still owed. The Cardinals entered this past offseason with the potential to go all in, but they again took a more modest approach, hoping that trading for Paul Goldschmidt would be enough for the offense, and that the rotation would stay healthy and effective. They entered the season with an 85-win projection, a 29% chance at the division, and a 38% shot at the division series, right about where they are today.
If they wanted to prove that “2019 matters,” as John Mozeliak said when he traded for Goldschmidt, he didn’t need to trade Bader or O’Neill for Wheeler. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were still available to provide production now, and maintain the organizational depth needed to make trades elsewhere. When Carlos Martinez went down in spring training and Alex Reyes‘ move to the rotation seemed unlikely, they could have added Dallas Keuchel or even Gio Gonzalez. When 37-year-old Adam Wainwright was suddenly the team’s third best starter, as Michael Wacha and Daniel Ponce de Leon struggled, Alex Reyes couldn’t pull it together, and Dakota Hudson was getting results despite poor peripherals, Dallas Keuchel was still out there.
The decision on Wheeler was preventable, but the Cardinals backed themselves into a corner and are now taking an enormous risk with the season on the line, and a continuation of the postseason drought looming. They still have a shot at the playoffs, just like they have when each of the past four seasons began, but this is the best shape they’ve been in in August since 2015; this was the most important deadline since 2014. The Cardinals opted not to help the team despite an obvious hole and help available in exchange for talent at a position with consistent organizational depth, and they might pay for that in a close playoff race.
The Cardinals started their planning for 2019 with a half-tank of gas, filled it up to three-quarters, and began the season. Then they started to pass gas stations on the highway, but every time, the gas seemed too expensive. They didn’t need to refuel when the tank was halfway or even one-quarter full. Of course, you can keep driving and hope that the price of gas gets more reasonable. But if it doesn’t, you either take the risk of breaking down or paying more than you think is reasonable. After missing the playoffs for three straight years, the Cardinals, just like they have in the last four winters, have opted to risk getting stranded on the side of the road with plenty of gas money but nothing in the tank all because they thought the gas stations on their route charge too much.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.